Monday, July 18, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011): Stairways to Heaven

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?”

-Job 38: 4, 7

Here is a movie in which everybody, everywhere is asking that question, in one way or another. People who ask this question always want an answer. Children want an answer from their parents. Parents want an answer from God. Where were parents when a boy drowned? Where was God when a son died?

I’ve been spending the past month—literally, the entire month—trying to figure out how to construct a definitive review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) around this central theme. Now, after having seen the film twice, I am faced with the prospect of actually writing that review, and nothing… nothing is pouring out of my mind. For this is one of the most flooring cinematic achievements in recent years; so speechless and in awe have I been of Malick’s accomplishment that I still cannot yet bring myself to thoroughly address it.

Here is what I will do instead. From the notes I took on the film (in a darkened theater) during my second viewing, I’ll break down the most important details I picked up from The Tree of Life, from beginning to end. I’ll try to stay on topic.

The movie’s first scene depicts a young, red-haired little girl embracing the farmland out in her backyard. As we learn from the scene that follows, this little girl will grow up to be Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the kindly matriarch of a family of baby boomers blooming in the 1950’s. She remembers what it was like to be a minor, running through green pastures, blessed with the liberation of childhood. Her life is now dominated by marriage, religion and industry. People her age have to look out for themselves.

She receives a telegram. One of her three sons has died. He was only 19. She admits she wants to die so that she could see her son again, one last time. Her husband, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), is shell-shocked. “I never got the chance to tell him how sorry I was,” he says, bowing his head down in shame. Both parents are now burdened with unbearable grief: Mr. O’Brien with his fatherly guilt, Mrs. O’Brien with her suicidal thoughts. The only thing that could permanently end their pain is to die and join their son in the afterlife, regaining that spiritual freedom which is only, truly ever experienced in childhood.

Their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), left the family a long time ago. In his younger years (played by Hunter McCracken), he went to mass with them, and he listened in the pews while the local priest read from the Book of Job and warned his audience of churchgoers that even good people are capable of corruption. And he would watch his father light the red candles in the corner of the church, making wishes. Now Jack is an adult, and the only trace of religion left in his life is a single blue candle that resides on the dinner table at his house. He works in a business world defined by profits. “World’s gone to the dogs,” he complains in a voiceover. “People are greedy. Getting worse.” It’s an environment dominated by industry and machines. Down in the courtyard below, a single tree grows in the corporate square, the last trace of nature left in this man-made world.

Jack’s parents were better than some parents in the 50’s. His mother tended to WWII veterans still suffering from their wounds, and his father attended barbecues with black families, resisting the racism that infested the times. But the O’Briens were not without conformity. When he was just a toddler, Jack’s mother lifted him up in her arms, directed his attention towards the sky and told him, “That’s where God lives.” A typical thing to say to a child back then. This queues a moment for Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack to make lovely use of Smetana’s “The Moldau”, a Russian ballad about rushing rivers, which signifies key moments at which water appears in the film. It can be spotted bursting out of hoses, flowing calmly in a river on the outskirts of town, and even encased in ice cubes used to wake up the O’Brien boys at daylight. Water, not God, is the only factual source of life that we know, and in later scenes Malick will remind us that there is nothing up there beyond the sky—only stars and space. By the time Jack is older, even the birds that fly outside his building know that there’s no God up there, and they challenge the patience of the heavens by moving in waves, like daredevils, across the kind of sky Malick loves: an eos rodoctolos, the “rosy-fingered dawn”.

Like his parents, Jack is still pained by the death of his brother. In a scene in an elevator, he calls his father on the phone and apologizes for something he said. Maybe it was something about the brother. We don’t ever find out how the brother died, but the mother blames it on God in a voiceover of her own. “Lord… why?” she begs. “Where were you?” The once-pious O’Brien family is gradually beginning to lose its faith.

None of us truly know why God—if there is a God—allows such evil to happen. That’s what we have Philosophy 101 for. And Malick has no definite answers. What he does seem to believe is that time itself is like life itself, and he suggests this by rewinding time all the way back to the prehistoric age, where Douglas Trumbell’s CGI dinosaurs threaten to tear each other to pieces before reconsidering their actions. A velociraptor has every opportunity to squash a sleeping herbivore’s head open, and instead it elects not to. It chooses not to commit evil. Yet God allows a meteor to strike Earth and eliminate the dinosaurs anyway. How good must we be—humans and animals alike—until God will step in to help us? Where has he been all this time?

In a visual device I am still in the process of figuring out, Malick suggests that the rewinding of time is like the birth of a baby. While the dinosaurs are dying out, a fetus is kicking inside a mother’s womb—in this case, the fetus of young Jack. After he is born, he grows up to learn how to seize property for his own, defiantly sobbing, “It’s mine!” when an adult threatens to take his belongings away. Or how to throw tantrums and knock bowls over when his mother is paying more attention to his baby brother than to him. He learns, in essence, the true meaning of rebellion. Mrs. O’Brien raises Jack to be generous, but Mr. O’Brien sternly objects: “Your mother’s naïve. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” He constantly presses on this truth by gripping his fingers on the back of Jack’s neck in every other scene, making it clear to his son who’s in charge in the family. Like Colonel Tall reminding Sergeant Staros of the cruelty of nature in Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), a universal truth is being demonstrated: in this world, the bully always has the upper hand.

Is Malick blaming all of this on God? His characters certainly do—the adults, at least. They have no other superiors to turn to as a reliable scapegoat. The children in The Tree of Life, raised to love and honor God, see things differently: it’s the adults, not God, who are the ones at fault. Childhood allows children a more simplistic worldly output. Thus, when a boy suffocates at the local pool, and Jack’s father is unable to save him, Jack is unforgiving: “Where were you? You let a boy drown.”

So, Jack starts thinking of his father as a man of despicable evil. Mr. O’Brien was a failed musical composer whose dreams were shattered after he impregnated his wife and was forced to raise a family on hard labor. He restricts his three sons with a long list of house rules, and it doesn’t take long for Jack to realize that his father’s rules are full of contradictions: “He says ‘don’t put your elbows on the table’… he does!” At one point, Jack is so full of hatred towards his authoritarian old man that he asks God to “kill him, let him die, get him out of here.” He confesses in voiceover, “What I want to do, I can’t do. I’d do what I hate.” And since Jack can’t kill his father, he starts inflicting his torture fantasies onto his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), unaware that he now shares his father’s penchant for cruelty.

But Malick goes to great pains to make it clear that Jack and Mr. O’Brien are not alike in wholly negative ways. Throughout the film, they are both confronted with delays and obstacles, which Malick presents, predominantly, in the form of staircases. Each set of stairs that appears in the movie—and there are a lot of them—presents a towering obstacle from each character’s point of view. Jack is climbing staircases from the moment of his youth, whether they be to the second floor, to the attic, or even to the forbidden floors of a wealthy family’s house that he has broken into (marking yet another turn of rebellion against greed in Jack’s life, symbolized from the moment he steals a white gown from the wealthy family’s dresser and casts it into the river on the town’s outskirts). But Jack’s father is climbing staircases of his own. He climbs the same steely staircase up to the upper floors of his plant every day. And whenever he's involved in a court case, he's always faced with the same damned spiral staircase leading up to the courtroom floor. It’s a never-ending climb to the top of prosperity and the American Dream—a climb he will never finish.

“I wanted to be loved because I was great,” Mr. O’Brien mutters. “A big man. Now, I’m nothing.” He muses over his own personal failings during a scene in which he and Jack tend to the vegetable garden in their backyard, ripping from the soil the plants that have been devoured by aphids. Significantly, this occurs during a moment in the film when O’Brien’s power plant has closed down, and he is forced to take a job nobody wants. God has now betrayed him to the point when all forms of plants—whether they be edible vegetables or electrical factories—cannot thrive in society. Nature does not even allow its own kind to thrive forever.

But there is a glimmer of hope for the O’Briens, even hope for the strained relationship between Jack and his father. “I’ve been tough on you,” Mr. O’Brien admits. “I’m not proud of it.” Jack, reflecting on the effect his parents have had on him, tries to hold back the pain: “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her.” Here, Malick implies that the closing down of the power plant has brought Jack closer to his father. The O’Briens will have to move to another neighborhood, and they will even have to leave behind the tree that grew in their backyard all throughout their lives—but hope remains. For indeed, sometimes it heals wounds when industry is abandoned. Maybe wounds can even be healed when nature is abandoned.

All of this is assembled by Malick in a cinematic canvas so full of cuts and quick moments that you’ll have to return to the film multiple times to catch the ones you’ve missed. One of the most thoughtful negative critiques of The Tree of Life to have appeared in the blogosphere recently has been published by Peter Tonguette, the esteemed Orson Welles/James Bridges biographer, who dislikes Malick’s recent editorial preferences. In his review, Tonguette compares Malick’s style unfavorably to Robert Mulligan’s The Man in the Moon (1991), another wonderful film about life growing up in the American South in the 50’s and 60’s. “The differences in style between The Man in the Moon and The Tree of Life,” Tonguette writes, “are vast. Mulligan respects Jenny Wingfield's brilliant, subtle screenplay much more than Malick seems to respect his own. Mulligan's visual choices reinforce, rather than obscure, the point of a given scene.”

It’s true, a more classical filmmaker like Robert Mulligan probably would have judged Malick’s film to be a little unorthodox. There is no doubt that Malick’s intention with The Tree of Life has been to change the form of cinema as we know it. Unlike The Man in the Moon, it is not instantly recognizable as a great portrait of human nostalgia. Since I intend to pay The Tree of Life repeated viewings in the years to come, I’ve only caught a handle of significant cuts in the film as of late, but so far I’ve been astounded by what I’ve found. Consider the volcanoes that appear in the time sequences. And consider a later scene, in which Jack lies awake one evening gazing over at the ominous nightlight on his bedroom wall. Now consider the scene that comes immediately after that scene, in which Jack is at school taking a spelling test, and two of the words assigned for him to spell are “volcano” and “socket”.

And bridges. There are only two bridges in this film, but Malick must have put them there for a reason. The first bridge is a bridge traversed by Jack during a sunny day in his youth. The second bridge is a much longer, quieter bridge—the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York, to be exact—that stretches across the screen in the final shot of the film. Even a child is well aware that a bridge is infinitely more difficult to traverse than a staircase. Wherever they take us, they take us to turning points in our lives, always.

What we have, then, is a film about bridges and staircases. We don’t always realize it when a staircase is climbed, or when a bridge is crossed. Once we’re across, and once we’re at the top, the fantasy is over. Our childhoods end. School, sex and stress all get in the way, and then we are forced to take jobs and raise families. We miss our liberties, but that is all we will ever do: miss them. Somewhere along those lines in our lives—when we weren’t looking—we grew up. Where were we?

A shorter version of this review is now available at


  1. Adam you are able to convey your feelings for this film really well and you write a challenging essay. I do disagree a bit on the overall perspective the film takes towards God. It seems to me that with all the Biblical and God references that Malick gives the film a more positive reflection of Western Christianity. If he wanted to be reflecting a negative connotation, he could have certainly done what Bergman did, which was directly portray God as malignant. I did not get that sense. Now true the characters question God, but it is more out of their grief. As for why God allows such things to happen, I think it's clear from this film that it's man's own fault. Even the title spells it out. The Tree of Life was given to Adam and Eve, and they choose the other tree, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Therefore, my interpretation of the film regards man's search for God's grace and forgiveness. In my viewing as well, the beach sequence is Jack finding that Salvation as he knocks on the door, and the door is literally opened to him. I still haven't posted my review yet as I'm still trying to form everything out. I do find it interesting that everyone has something different to say. That's why it's such a great film.

  2. Jonny, you've given me a lot to ruminate on right there. Your interpretation may also explain some of the more negative opinions being expressed by some critics as of late. I found an unusual discussion going on at Dave Kehr's site, where even Jonathan Rosenbaum has admitted, "I’m reminded of my own southern childhood by The Tree of Life in ways that I find both unpleasant and unedifying."

    Since I didn't live through the 50's and 60's, I can't speak from experience whether or not Malick is portraying that era (and the Christian values of that era) lovingly or not. Is the movie itself Christian? I can't tell. We'd have to find out where Malick's faiths lie. To me the film resembles the "Christian Atheist" works of Bresson, although I will hasten to add that it's been so long since I last watched a Bresson flick.

  3. Adam I too have been lurking around finding some definitely negative reviews of the film, mostly about the film being too unabashed in its spirituality (whatever it might be). I think the film is definitely loaded with Biblical references, unintended or not. I was taking the film on those references as I'm interpreting it. However, I would still argue with the naysayers that maybe they're bringing too much subjectivity to their reviews. Films aren't good or bad because of what they're about. It's all about how they do it. Does anyone complain about Bergman or Woody Allen for their agnosticism that they continually push in their films? Like you mentioned, Bresson used Christian themes. It's a fascinating debate for sure.

  4. This is certainly a thought-provoking essay Adam, and you leave a lot to chew on. I've stated my own case on the film, and it was quite positive.

    In any event the main story is an abstract coming of age tale that centers around young Jack, one of the three sons of Pitt and his lovely wife, who is before long coming face-to-face with death, iniquity and deviant behavior. In brief vignettes Jack watches the neighbor’s boy drown, breaches his brother’s trust, and steals a dress from another home. But the overriding domestic discord is caused by Pitt’s inability to overcome his authoritarianism. He instructs his kids to address him as “Sir” and even to “Hit me!” in toughening them up for life’s inevitable cruel turns. It’s clear enough that Pitt is loving and well-intentioned, but that he was scarred in a career gone astray. His propensity at the keyboard suggest a missed opportunity, caused by armed forces intervention. Likewise, with any luck, he may have secured a patent for his “inventions.” The mother is less vividly drawn, and in fact is only an ideal for her kids, representing the symbol of motherhood that follows the old-fashioned rules of patriarchal authority. But in this household a volcano is ready to explode. It mirrors the harmony and discord that characterize the difficulties in families when emotions are held in check.

    Malick’s overarching point is that mankind’s place in the general scheme is as miniscule as a blink of the eye in the billions of years since the Big Bang, and that feelings and memory are as fleeting as the onset of the next series of human events. Certainly one is reminded of the remembrances that are caught for a nano-second near the conclusion of Spielberg’s A.I Artifical Intelligence that are meant to last for all eternity.

  5. Adam - This is a fine analysis of a lot of the significant imagery in Malick's films (which I love and have seen four times). I especially love your analysis of the staircases in the film. Interesting, that shot of Pitt climbing the steel stairs (in your post above) is nearly identical to a shot of Nick Nolte's character climbing a companionway on the ship at the beginning of The Thin Red Line - and Colonel Tall is another character driven to climb.

    I believe you are right that the "barbecue" scene suggests that Mr. O'Brien is not racist, but being picky here, do you suggest that he hosted a barbecue with a black family? He merely stops at the roadside barbecue stand to buy "a pound of brisket."

    I also like your comments about the bridges. Interesting about the final bridge being the Verrazano - a spanning a passage that has such a significant place in American history.

    Thanks for all your thoughts and sensitive observations on a great film.

  6. Sam, like you, I'm reminded of A.I. when I watch this movie. I can't think of another movie from the last decade that so eloquently comments on our place in the universe. Quite a coincidence that the two films were made 10 years apart from each other.

    Hokahey, good catch there on Tall climbing up to the deck in TTRL. I knew I had seen an identical shot like that somewhere in Malick's filmography! The cruiser at the beginning of TTRL definitely reeks of industry much in the way Pitt's power plant does. And the Verrazano's appearance in the final shot seems to suggest industry of a different kind: industry controlled by nature, signifying that the circle of life goes ever on.

    I should probably omit the word "host" in that barbecue paragraph; you're probably correct that Mr. O'Brien is merely attending the barbecue with the black families. I'm glad Malick included that scene, though -- it shows us that Mr. O'Brien is not an inherently bad man, despite his authoritarian flaws.

  7. “There are only two bridges in this film, but Malick must have put them there for a reason. The first bridge is a bridge traversed by Jack during a sunny day in his youth. The second bridge is a much longer, quieter bridge—the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York, to be exact—that stretches across the screen in the final shot of the film.”

    As much as I can remember, there are three bridges:

    1) The railroad bridge in Waco. Jack is crossing it in a dramatic moment.

    2)Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York with a bird flying along and Fort Wadsworth in the far shore. A still without the bird:

    3)Penn hears RL’s call on a “bridge” too: a passage over the road linking two building. Malick associated the road with the river in Badlands, so…

    Beyond a reasonable doubt, 2) and 3) are a reference to Hölderlin’s Heidelberg.


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